[content warning for slurs]
I have sometimes seen arguments that imply that bisexual people partnered to heterosexual people do not experience homophobia.
It makes sense that people might think this is the case. There are a lot of concrete ways that being in a heterosexual relationship makes your life easier. Het-partnered bisexual people can walk down the street holding hands with their partner without having someone yell slurs at them. They can get married in every country. Their parents are unlikely to reject their partner purely because of their gender. I certainly don’t mean this post to erase these advantages or to imply that het-partnered bisexual people who consider themselves to not experience homophobia are wrong.
When a lot of bisexuals talk about our experiences of oppression, the word that comes up a lot is invisibility. This can seem like, well, a pretty privileged complaint. “People think I’m straight” is often not a problem that the visibly queer have much sympathy for. And while that’s invalidating of your experiences, it can be hard to think what material harm being taken as straight causes.
But I think het-partnered bisexual people do have a very particular experience of homophobia, and I hope I can explain the material harm it causes in a way that makes sense.
First, and most obviously, being het-partnered now does not erase the homophobia you experienced in the past. Familial rejection, job discrimination, and inadequate health care — to name just three examples– can have effects that last a long time after your same-sex relationship ends.
Second, many (perhaps most) het-partnered bisexual people are partnered to straight people. And straight people are very often homophobic. Thus, het-partnered bisexual people are often in a position of being in a committed relationship with someone who hates a fundamental aspect of their identity. This particularly affects younger or more vulnerable bisexuals, who may not have a lot of options or may not know how to filter for kinds of homophobia more subtle than waving around a GOD HATES FAGS sign.
The effects of heterosexual partners’ homophobia can be very severe. 61% of bisexual women and 37% of bisexual men have experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking from an intimate partner, compared to 44% of lesbians, 35% of straight women, 26% of gay men, and 29% of straight men. 90% of bisexual female survivors report only male perpetrators; 79% of bisexual male survivors report only female perpetrators. The stark conclusion here is that, for queer people, being in an intimate relationship with a straight person is dangerous. The danger, I believe, is directly tied to the homophobia of many straight people.
Even bisexuals who are not abused can face harm from their partners’ homophobia. (I am mostly familiar with female bisexual experiences; I appreciate input from male bisexuals.) Some bisexuals are closeted to their partners, which means they have to self-monitor to avoid giving any sign that they might not be straight, even in their closest and most intimate relationship. Other bisexual women face extreme jealousy from their partners, who believe that they are “slutty” or will inevitably cheat because they’re bi. I myself have dated several men who treated my interest in women, not as if it were an important part of my sexuality, but as if it were a performance for them, a trivial thing that only mattered because they got off on it. They were confused when I discussed my bisexuality in a context other than dirty talk.
Third, the closet itself is a deeply traumatizing experience. As an excellent article about gay men’s experiences of the closet puts it:
“The trauma for gay men is the prolonged nature of it,” says William Elder, a sexual trauma researcher and psychologist. “If you experience one traumatic event, you have the kind of PTSD that can be resolved in four to six months of therapy. But if you experience years and years of small stressors—little things where you think, Was that because of my sexuality?—that can be even worse.”
Or, as Elder puts it, being in the closet is like someone having someone punch you lightly on the arm, over and over. At first, it’s annoying. After a while, it’s infuriating. Eventually, it’s all you can think about.
Closeted bisexual people have some advantages over closeted gay people: they can form relationships with people they love and have them socially recognized. These advantages can make it easier to be closeted. Het-partnered bisexual people can also find themselves de facto forced into the closet, particularly if they have an unsympathetic partner; being out as bisexual can feel like it’s oversharing or bringing up private information, even if mentioning your heterosexuality in the same context would be fine.
But many of the ways the closet can be traumatizing are the same. You hear what straight people really think about faggots and dykes when they don’t think any of us are around; in some contexts, that can be pretty horrifying. (My dad used to explain that he was fine with gay people as long as they didn’t flaunt it “like this,” that last accompanied by a mincing limp-wristed high-voiced caricature of a gay man.) You may have to self-monitor: avoid overly gay dress or body language, don’t look too long at someone you find attractive, hide your crushes, don’t mention people you find attractive when it comes up. While the studies are methodologically limited, research suggests that LGB people have higher rates of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and substance abuse, and that concealing one’s LGB identity makes the psychological distress associated with being LGB worse.
Of course, the closet is different for different people. Some people find it easy to hide their LGB identity; they can either shrug off homophobic comments from straight people or don’t experience it. But I think a strong “het-partnered bisexual people don’t face homophobia” position requires you to believe that the closet is a privilege. We recognize that a twelve-year-old gay kid who can’t come out to his parents because they’ll reject him is facing homophobia, even if he’s not ready to date; the same can be true of the monogamously and heterosexually married thirty-year-old bisexual man.
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Sophia Kovaleva said:
I think part of this is a result of toxic monogamy, where people in monogamous relationships are expected to pretend that every their relationships is The One, by devaluing or even completely abstaining from bringing up past relationships and devaluing or hiding their current crushes and even casual attraction. Like, in the Distracted Boyfriend meme, a super charitable explanation would be that the girlfriend is appalled because openly ogling people on the streets is very impolite, but we’re all supposed to understand that the problem is that he displays or even has any attraction to someone other than his girlfriend *at all*, and she would have been equally appalled if he was ogling an actress on a TV screen. See also, all the monogamous people who consider watching porn to be cheating. #NotAllMonogamousPeopleAreLikeThat but many of them are, which probably contributes to why they have a hard time wrapping their minds around the notion that sexual orientation can matter in a relationship, when you’re not supposed to have non-partner-directed sexuality at all.
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Toxic monogamy sounds like a phrase that people who have a relatively easy time getting into relationships can come up with. Many people do not have such an easy time at this though. They literally have only one or two romantic relationships in their lives no matter how much effort they make. Are they to accept that while their partner might be the love of their lives, they are only one of a dozen and not especially important? Why should the successful have a right to be so greedy?
What is peculiar is that the victimization of women at the hands of men, is extremely similar between hetero- and bisexual women (98 vs 90%), even though lesbians are more often victims from (and thus also perpetrators of) domestic abuses than heterosexuals. So either bisexual women have near immunity from their lesbian partners, or something else is going on.
I’ve been told that women who identify as bisexual overwhelmingly choose men as their primary or only partner. This makes a lot more sense as an explanation: bisexual women overwhelmingly experience domestic abuse from male long term partners, because they overwhelmingly choose male long term partners. I suspect that abuses in intense (live in) relationships are much more often categorized as abuse by an intimate partner, while abuse by more casual sex partners is seen as stranger abuse.
This is really peculiar again, because for rape, NISVS uses the sexist definition that requires penetration. Heterosexual male victims of rape (as defined by the NISVS) overwhelmingly report male perpetrators, presumably because men are typically equipped with a penis, while women are not. Their separate reporting on (the more common than rape for male victims) forced intercourse with male victims called ‘made to penetrate’ shows that 55% of the time there is a sole female perpetrator (and another 16.6% a woman is co-perpetrator). Yet these sexual abuses by women are not included in the ‘lifetime prevalence of rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner’ figures.
So then that 79% of female perpetrators must be an undercount, because the female-on-male equivalent of rape is excluded. That then means that if bisexual men often have long term male partners, then to get to 79% female perps, female partners of bisexual men have to commit domestic violence and stalking a lot. That either means that heterosexual partners of male bisexuals are extremely homophobic, or what seems more likely to me: bisexual men mostly have female long-term partners. In that case, you can’t conclude that heterosexual partners are more abusive from these statistics.
I don’t see how this necessarily follows from the data you present. Bisexual people have more mental issues, greater childhood adversity, less support from family, more disapproval from friends and more financial problems than homosexuals. We know that most if not all of these are risk factors for being abused (probably in part because it causes people to end up with abusers more often for various reasons). If homophobia were the cause, we’d expect homosexuals to be at least as badly off on ‘childhood adversity, less support from family, more disapproval from friends,’ because on none of these, the potential risk factor of bisexuals having a homophobic hetero partner, should have an impact. So this data pretty strongly suggests that bisexuals face something that goes beyond homophobia.
It seems absurd to categorize something as homophobia that homosexuals don’t experience or not to that extent.
You argue yourself that bisexuals may have a worse experience in life, due to being in the closet more often and/or longer. Other reasons can be that I’ve heard that bisexuals tend to be disliked in the LGB community. So they may lack the supportive community that exists for gays and lesbians. Another possible explanation is that bisexuals may be less understood and/or treated worse than gays and lesbians, because people expect others to choose to date one sex.
If traumatization causes an increased risk of victimization by partners, which I think is the scientific consensus, then bisexual people may not so much be more at risk due to them having relationships with straight people, but they may end up with abusing people due to their traumatization.
A proper answer seems to require a study that doesn’t just ask about the sex of perpetrating partners, but the sex of non-perpetrating partners as well. If both same-sex partners and opposite-sex partners of bisexuals are perpetrators more often than one would expect, then homophobia of opposite-sex partners can’t be the (full) explanation.
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> This is really peculiar again, because for rape, NISVS uses the sexist definition that requires penetration.
Are we certain of this? They break “made to penetrate” out separately in the “Sexual Violence Victimization” section, but I think that in the “Violence by an Intimate Partner” section they might be lumping all forms of sexual violence together under “rape.”
They go to the trouble of defining their terms in the report, so then I certainly assume that they actually stick to their definitions all the time. If they don’t, it would make reading the report just guess work. I disagree with some of the CDC’s choices*, but they don’t seem incompetent.
On page 1, under the heading “Sexual Violence by any Perpetrator,” they also give separate figures for rape and for “sexual violence other than rape,” where they explicitly mention that this includes ‘made to penetrate.’ Because they distinguish between rape and “sexual violence other than rape” on page 1, I assume that when they use the term rape on page 2, they are not referring to sexual violence in toto.
* Like their tendency to focus on presenting the lifetime figures, rather than those for the preceding year. I think that those are more useful to assess current risk and thus for making & assessing policy. Also, research on recall of early childhood sexual abuse shows that very many people no longer recall this abuse or no longer see it as abuse. Furthermore, this lack of recall is far larger for men (with 16% recall for men and 64% for women). There is a substantial gap between the lifetime rape/made to penetrate figures of men and women, but no such gap for the 12 month figures. There are various possible explanations (like women being abused more in childhood and/or the victimization rates of men and women having equalized over time), but the aforementioned research suggests strongly that loss of recall is at least one significant factor, which makes the lifetime figures less accurate than the 12 month ones.
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“lesbians are more often victims from (and thus also perpetrators of) domestic abuses than heterosexuals” As far as I know, this is not a safe assumption. I’m not that familiar with the data, but my recollection is that this commonly cited statistic about the percentage of lesbians who have experienced domestic abuse doesn’t come from any source that identifies whether the perpetrators were male or female. The survey that Ozy linked to says on page 27 that 67.4% of lesbian women identified only female perpetrators for “rape, physical violence, and/or stalking in the context of an intimate relationship”. It seems like a non-negligible amount of lesbians have experienced domestic abuse with a male perpetrator, otherwise I would expect that number to be higher.
That same page is where the “78.5% of bisexual men identified only females as their perpetrators” figure comes from; it doesn’t hinge on the definition of rape because it isn’t about rape survivors specifically. It’s the percentage out of “men who experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner”.
True. This may actually be another problem with the sole reporting of lifetime data in this report. Perhaps many of the lesbians who report violence experienced it before they identified as lesbian and still had a male partner.
Because studies have found that female sexuality is more flexible, there may even be a selection effect, where women who have experienced abuse at the hands of men may be more likely to start identifying as lesbian, while it would be less common for abused men to identify as gay.
Looking at the literature, it doesn’t seem to explicitly delineate between abuse experienced within same sex relationships and opposite sex relationships, by those who (currently) identify as LGB. Some studies may report only the former, while others may report both, but they are not explicit about it.
We seem to be ahead of the science here, with it lacking the kind of detail that we need to answer some of our questions. A complication is also that some of the science and much of the praxis on this topic is politicized.
bisexual women … overwhelmingly choose male long term partners
bisexual men mostly have female long-term partners
Well, yes, this is essentially guaranteed already by how bisexuals’ theoretically available dating pool is 90%+ opposite-gender. There may be also some additional wiggle space due to how much “push away” from L/G circles there is; this in particular and not the opposite, since AFAIG bisexuals are likely to acquiesce to being closeted around straight people but really not to being “countercloseted” in L/G circles.
This would be interesting to compare with data on the general LGBTQ community participation rate of (cis) homosexuals vs. bisexuals, I think (if such a thing exists).
There is some relevant data in the Pew 2013 survey of LGBT Americans. In a number of ways, bisexuals show less LGBT community participation. The percentage of members of each group saying that only a few or none of their close friends are LGBT was 33% for gay men, 39% for lesbians, 47% for bisexual women, and 67% for bisexual men (p. 58). Page 87 has a table summarizing some types of community involvement; gay men and lesbians reported greater participation in various LGBT community events or activities than bisexuals of either gender. Bisexual men showed less involvement than bisexual women. The report says that higher education and income levels are also associated with higher participation; I don’t know to what extent that might be a cause of these discrepancies.
A factor may be that high prevalence of casual sex within gay culture allows bisexual men to relatively easily have sex with men without actually having an involvement with gay society beyond that; while bisexual women are perhaps more likely to find sex partners in a lesbian community.
Although causality may (partially) be the other way around as well, of course.
I agree with Aapje’s post. I don’t think the data here really supports the idea that bi people are inherently more at risk of abuse from straight partners than straight people are. Or at least, you’d need more data to really make that claim.
“Other reasons can be that I’ve heard that bisexuals tend to be disliked in the LGB community. So they may lack the supportive community that exists for gays and lesbians.”
This resonates for me, and is something I’ve heard from nearly every other bi person I know too–not being fully accepted by mainstream society, but also not being fully accepted in the gay community because you’re not gay enough. You tend to get a lot of intolerance from both sides.
I like, never comment, and I tried earlier and it hasn’t seemed to go through. If there’s just a delay that I am too impatient to have figured out and this is a double lost, my apologies.
Otherwise, you did say that you’d like input from male bisexuals, so here I go! Please do take this as one person’s viewpoint, and about something I’ve experienced a lot of very strong feelings about. It may be part of a broader truth, with more details filling in notable gaps from other perspectives, or it could be straight up innacurate, but this is at least an account of my experience of it.
When it comes to being a bi guy dating straight women, you learn that there are women who consider themselves “woke” on queer issues who have…some wild responses when confronted with the concept of dating a member of that community.
My basic theory is that the most common form of acceptance straight women afford queer men is making a new category in their brain for them. “Okay, so there’s men, women, and gay men” the brain seems to say.(I’m going to largely focus on the bi male angle and let bi women speak for themselves). “I totally support gay men. Gay men are great, I’ve got lots of friends who are gay men. They’re a lot like my female friends. I don’t have to worry about them making a move on me, we can be friends and there’s no tension. It’s great.”
What’s important to note though is that they are considered fully and completely separate from other men. The perceived social role is totally different. The perceived gender, I would argue, is different. Which makes bi men a problem.
Bi men usually get filed as a gay man or a straight man depending on which one we read as most often. But if I’m out, as I am to many of my friends, topics will come up in conversation where they’re reminded that, oh, right, I am not actually straight. Or not actually gay. Gay-perceived bisexual men who remind people that they are in fact attracted to women remind women that, oh right, this is still a guy, one who I have to monitor possible interpersonal sexual politics with. Straight-percieved bisexual men remind women that, in fact, they are queer. Which, if they’ve been considered as a possible romantic or sexual partner, is when some of those “woke” straight ladies can suddenly run face-first into the fact that, when it comes right down to it, they find the idea of being with a queer man in any sort of non-platonic context repulsive. The closest approximation, and I don’t want to suggest a parallel magnitude in any way, would be something like trans panic. Some straight women have a deep fear of men they’re interested in turning out to be gay. The idea that they were attracted, unwittingly, to someone who they thought was familiar but turned out to be an other. The fear of external humiliation, that they would look stupid or gross by association. That male bisexuality is kind of inherently tied to hedonism and perversion and that interacting with it makes them dirty in some way.
I dated a woman for a few years who knew j was bi but would basically treat me as straight. When I did something that didn’t fit that mold though, she’d get cold and withdraw. If I asked her about it, the explanation would vary. Sometimes it was that a friend of hers had a boyfriend come out and she was worried I’d do the same, sometimes it was that she didnt mind but she worried about it coming up while we were out with friends, sometimes it was that she was worried that I’d cheat on her . It should be noted that this isn’t examples of me like, talking about how much I love dick. I’m a guy with a healthy femme side, and this would be when that would come out. Acting in a way which was read as femme brought up all negative associations with bi men, regardless of the context. When she found out that I’d done a lot of soul searching about my gender and I’d considered whether I identified as male in the past, she screamed at me until I cried. Generally, it was clear that she felt my bisexuality was something akin to a habit for snorting whippits. She wasn’t going to break up with me over it but she didn’t want to know about it and she didn’t want me doing it in public.
Even if you aren’t out, you do definitely experience some level of ostracism from the public . Frankly, people are good at picking up when something deviates from a pattern. If they think you’re straight but you just…feel a little off? Most people read that as a bad feeling about someone. I think it’s people’s brains rapidly flicking between the “gay” and “straight ” boxes, not sure which one to put me in. In practice I think it reads that I’m being deceptive. So I’ve dealt with a lot of lack of trust.
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Henry Gorman said:
I’m also a bisexual man, and although I don’t have any single relationship experience that’s as bad as what you describe, I’ve had opposite-sex partners who were “weird” in some way about my sexuality– either implicitly assuming that I was somehow depraved/weird or suspecting that I was in the process of figuring out that I was exclusively gay. Even some partners who weren’t themselves prejudiced had to deal with social judgments for being with me– one of my former girlfriends told me that her father asked about me, and then, after she described me, asked if I was gay. When she hesitated and thought for a moment about how to explain it, he interjected that it was disgusting for her to have sex with a man who had been with another man. She later told me that the anxieties that that experience and the prospect of having to explain stuff to her family made her feel much more anxious about the relationship and contributed to some tensions which ultimately led us to break up. (We got back together for a while about half a year later.)
Currently, I’m married to a bisexual woman (the ultimate form of solidarity between men who love men and women who love women), and I find that having a partner who just understands is a big relief.
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Peter Gerdes said:
That’s kinda a confusing title. I made it through half the post before I realized you were saying that bisexual people in straight relationships can be hurt by homophobia rather than that they can themselves can display homophobia (I suspect both are true with the later often being the kind of performative act to signal they are not themselves non-straight).
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Reblogged this on Random Me.
cw: conversion therapy
People often reduce bisexual people’s experiences of homophobia into stuff related to current relationship status, but you bring up good examples of how that’s wrong. I particularly liked your points about familial homophobia, past experiences, and stigma from straight partners. I don’t know if this fits neatly into just one of those categories, but I knew a bisexual woman who experienced conversion therapy based on sexual orientation. At the time she got coerced into conversion therapy, she had never been with another girl. Afaik, she only had one same-sex relationship; she typically dated guys. Like you argued, it’s not always a matter of relationship status. Really serious homophobic shit does happen to some bisexual people, including bisexual people who have never had a same-sex relationship. So people should be careful about the assumptions they make.
(To be clear, though, experiencing hardship doesn’t make you more of a “real bisexual” than someone who hasn’t dealt with similar shit. You don’t need to feel guilty and insecure if you can’t relate to this post. Your relationship to bisexuality is okay; people can find it meaningful for all sorts of reasons beyond what they bring into discussions about societal problems– starting with “it’s a pretty good description of my sexuality”, of course!)
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(To be clear, I addressed Ozy as “you” at first, but in the concluding parenthetical I’m addressing a hypothetical reader with that pronoun. Thought I should make that clear because in this very post, they’re discussing some negative experiences with straight partners, so obviously they’re not the hypothetical person who doesn’t resonate with bi people’s experiences of homophobia.)